Defying Expectations in Radical Women
Throughout the run of Radical Women, we offer weekly gallery talks by artists, scholars, and writers who discuss specific works from the exhibition that inspire and provoke them. In the post below, Elena Shtromberg recaps her talk.
If one could identify a constant in the Radical Women exhibition, it would be that it defies expectations. This is something that carries through in the individual works, the exhibition design, and even in the broad thematic categories that organize the works.
Consider the "Self-Portrait" gallery. It is here that the visitor will not only find works that defy the tradition of portraiture—where a docile female subject is positioned for the spectator’s consumption—but also works that reconceive of a genre that has structured centuries of art history. This is certainly not the case with the video of Peruvian artist Victoria Santa Cruz (1922–2014), whose Me gritaron negra (They shouted black at me) from 1978 addresses the public loudly, proudly, and defiantly, repeatedly chanting "Negra!" The artist poetically recasts what was once an insult directed to a younger self, in a powerful pronouncement that resonates today, loudly and assertively, just as it had 40 years ago. This is one of the few works that explicitly tackles the radicality of race and gender at the same time. Santa Cruz founded the first Black Theater troupe in Peru in 1958, decades before a Black consciousness movement was cultivated in countries like Brazil with large Afro-Brazilian populations.
Just behind Santa Cruz’s video is a small circular area that is both sectioned off but open to infiltration of the other works, a feature of the exhibition’s innovative design. This space is dedicated to the Peruvian artist Teresa Burga’s Autorretrato. Estructura. Informe, 9.6.1972 (Self-portrait. Structure. Report, 9.6.1972) from 1972. Little known in the US, Burga’s work not only thwarts the expectations of portraiture, but also expands its manifestation as conceptual art. Here, the viewer encounters a collection of medical reports documenting the artist’s biorhythms, including a phonocardiogram belting out the staccato pulses of her heart. The representation of the artist’s identity is provided through a charting of her biological functions, reframing physical likeness through medical data. This is echoed in the work of the Colombian artist Sandra Llano-Mejía in her multi-media work In pulso (In Pulse) from 1978. Exhibited in the "Mapping the Body" section of the exhibition, In pulso displays the vital rhythms recorded by electrodes placed on the artist’s body. A video monitor and graph paper track the physical functions of the artist’s body, generating a somatic cartography of data that straddles the different exhibition themes and modes of representation.
The tension between physical bodies and their representation in two dimensional formats is at the heart of a number of other works in this exhibition. Among the most provocative is Epidermic Scapes by the Brazilian artist Vera Chaves Barcellos from 1977/1982. Located within the "Body Landscape" gallery, the large installation comprises 30 images organized in a grid on the floor. Each is a register of a fragment of human skin amplified beyond recognition and printed on photographic paper. The grid appears to even out and standardize the unique and always individual topographies of skin, eliding the many stories written in this outer layer of our bodies.